Home My Library Authors News and Reviews Forums Links
  ? Help
Welcome to ElectricStory.com® Search by: 
Other categories:

Exclusive Movie Reviews
by Lucius Shepard

"Crimea River"
by Howard Waldrop

"Things I've Found"
by Mark Rose

Editorials
by Bob Kruger

"From Here You
Can See the
Sunquists"

by Richard Wadholm

"They're Made
Out of Meat"

by Terry Bisson

"A Dry, Quiet War"
by Tony Daniel

"The Night of White Bhairab"
by Lucius Shepard


All Movie Reviews

All Movie Reviews

One Film to Rule Them All
by Lucius Shepard
December 26, 2001

If J.R.R. Tolkien were to pop back into the world and see what he has wrought, the teeming hordes of witch-mages and pointy-eared folk and the penny-a-dozen Dark Lords that throng the unsavory underbelly of the publishing world, all straight out of the Elves R' Us cut-out catalogue, their derivative adventures puffing out thinly repetitive plots into plump, garishly bedragoned paperbacks whose weight far exceeds the value of the words they contain, then I am dead certain that the old Oxford don would shake his head ruefully, gather eight companions to himself and journey through hosts of bulbous, blackhead-studded geeks and shriveled potterites and the evil marketers who rule them, until at last, bloody and haggard, his company in disarray, he reached Mount Doom, where he would heave the original manuscript of The Lord of the Rings into the destroying fires, thereby ending the age of Infinite Crap. Tolkien is, of course, not to blame for Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, or any of the semi-literate drudges not named Terry who have either ripped him off or tried to dress their undernourished imaginations in cloaks of his design. The Ring books were a labor of scholarly playfulness, a meditation—it seems—on European history, testifying to the end of Old World passions and a cultural loss of innocence, and Tolkien could have had no idea that they would spawn such a glut of talentless imitators, and that they in turn would fund the loathsome industry of the fantasy trilogy, an enterprise rank and gross in nature that preys upon the cultivated idiocy of the consumer mentality, delivering paperweight-sized chunks of savory yet substanceless waste to an audience they have trained to thrive on garbage. It's a shame that Tolkien's work has not produced more of a printed legacy, for despite his often annoying obsessions (endless dinner parties, songs, and so forth), his trilogy stands as a landmark work in genre fiction; but at least it appears that now, thanks to Peter Jackson, a worthwhile cinematic legacy may be his.

To anyone who has ever tussled with the problem of how to skeletonize a five-hundred-page novel into a hundred-and-twenty-page screenplay, it should be apparent that Jackson has made the best movie it was possible to make when confronted with a work of such scope and containing so many characters; and it should be apparent to every reader that in doing so he has been absolutely faithful to the spirit of Tolkien's intent. Everyone who has read the books will have their quibbles—the Balrog was not quite right, say, or the troll wasn't how I imagined it—but this is to be expected. My main difficulty with the film was that the backstories of the characters, that of Strider in particular, were given such short shrift (according to those in the know, Jackson takes care of this problem in the second and third parts of the trilogy). But these quibbles aside, the story of Frodo the hobbit and the Fellowship, their quest to carry the One Ring into Mordor and there destroy it, along with the power of the Dark Lord, has been crafted with loving attention to detail into the most visually spectacular movie in the history of the genre. The set pieces of the book are rendered wonderfully well, with Jackson taking CGI effects to the next plane, and the settings, the peaceful hobbit village, Rivendell, Lothlorien, the mines of Moria, Isengard, and all the rest are every bit as splendid as our imaginations have painted them to be. Indeed, the sequence of scenes in Moria surely must be ranked among the most effective long action sequences in cinematic history.

If Fellowship were merely visually satisfying, it might be counted a success, but it is accomplished on every level. Good movies begin with the good choices made by producers, and New Line's decision to give a relatively unknown director from New Zealand 270 million dollars to shoot three films at once deserves our applause and perhaps will teach a lesson to Dreamworks, who, wanting to take no risks, handed the Harry Potter franchise over to a maintenance man of a director, Chris Columbus, and achieved a predictably uninspired result. Jackson had previously made a cult comedy/horror movie, Dead Alive; an animated feature, Meet the Feebles; an acclaimed yet thoroughly uncommercial picture, Heavenly Creatures, that dealt with a murder committed by two disturbed teenaged girls; and a forgettable Robert Zemeckis-produced Michael J. Fox vehicle, The Frighteners. Hardly the resume to inflame the enthusiasm of the bean counters. But in each of these films, Jackson demonstrated a prodigious visual imagination, and in Creatures, the movie that gave Kate Winslet her start, he showed his cleverness in handling actors.

Though it is marvelously well-cast (if there were an Oscar for casting, the office responsible for this cast could start clearing shelf space now), Fellowship is not an actor's movie, but Jackson has the wisdom to avoid drowning his players in the action, and makes certain they have enough room to establish their characters—he cannot give them a great deal of room, because there is so much story to get through; but he has made certain that the characters of all the Fellowship are there onscreen, though it will take the three movies to present them each in full. Frodo, played with appropriate soulfulness by Elijah Wood, gets the lion's share of the screen time. A chunkily earnest Sean Astin does the dutiful, dog-loyal Sam Gamgee to a turn. Grizzled Ian McKellen as Gandalf and a majestically hirsute Christopher Lee as Saruman convince us that wizards must have behaved just this way. John Rhys-Davies, who has done woeful duty in any number of horrid genre projects, finally is given a quality part as Gimli the Dwarf, and Sean Bean's Boromir is touchingly, pridefully human. Even the most flimsily realized of the company, Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom), is sufficiently defined through the action sequences, especially in his quicksilver bow-and-arrow work, though it will be helpful to see, as has been promised, the fleshing out of his relationship with Gimili in The Two Towers. But Viggo Mortensen is the actor likely to benefit most from the movie. Casting Mortensen in the role of Strider, the lean, scraggly, somewhat suspect heir-in-exile to the throne of Gondor, instead of going for a more bankable leading man, was a stroke of genius. Mortensen, one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets, is not only physically perfect for the part, but has the skill and presence to develop a complex character without employing much in the way of dialogue. Prior to Fellowship, his most substantial role was that of the miscreant brother in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, which was based on a Bruce Springsteen song, "State Trooper." Following this he took featured roles in a few B pictures, the excellent actioner American Yakuza among them. It was clear that he had ability, but the studios did not seem to know what to do with him, and since then he has been cast chiefly as a heavy in pictures such as A Perfect Murder and The Prophecy, wherein he played Satan. As Strider, Mortensen projects immense depth and presence, deftly externalizing his performance, and I think the studios may now recognize that looking a little seedy and dangerous is not such a bad thing for a leading man, and that the role will have a similar effect on Mortensen's career as the role of Han Solo had on Harrison Ford's.

But in the end this is Peter Jackson's movie, his opportunity to shine, and he delivers the best genre flick since Kubrick's 2001, and one of the best action movies ever. Star Wars? Forget it. Lucas' fanboy orgy was purely kindergarten stuff, finger-painting by contrast to the artfulness and power of Fellowship, and sinks lower in my estimation with each abysmally juvenile sequel. Jackson claims to have read Lord of the Rings dozens of times, and this shows not only in his faithfulness to the books, but in the touches he has added, which seem entirely of a piece with the products of Tolkien's imagination. The caverns beneath Isengard, for example, wherein he depicts the births of an army of Orcs from pods, lending the creatures an insectile aspect that expands Tolkien's original intent. And that is the salient difference between Columbus' dreary management of the Potter franchise and Jackson's painstaking direction of Fellowship. To Columbus it was a gig, to Jackson it was a love affair upon which he focused his own imagination, caring enough about the books not only to recreate them, but to expand and illuminate the text. Every scene in the movie resonates with his affection for the materials and his desire to infuse it with something of himself. The magical duel between Saruman and Gandalf; Gandalf's fireworks; the banshee wails and relentlessness of the Nazgul; the immense crumbling stairs of Moria; the hellish terrain of Isengard; the image of the warrior Sauron that opens the film amidst a battle that must have realized the wet dreams of Tolkien freaks everywhere; the Escher-on-Ecstasy atmosphere of Lothlorien; etc., etc. All these instances reflect both Tolkien and Jackson, the imprints of their sensibilities blending perfectly.

My fear after seeing the movie, after recognizing how well it would do, was that a spew of fantasy crap would soon be voided from the orifices of the Hollywood beast, and that we would be forced to confront the awful specter of hastily achieved film versions of such immortal classics as The Sword of Shannara and remakes such as Dragonheart 3. But now I think—at least I hope—that Fellowship may have raised the bar too high, that having seen the real thing, the audience will find that sitting through another lame-ass fake has all the appeal and odorous stimulation of being pissed on by the family dog. It may be that we will see abominations like The Sword of Shannara on film, but if we do, while they may prove as noxious as the novels that bred them, it's my feeling that they will at least be well mounted. Perhaps this confidence is misplaced. It's possible that Hollywood will misapprehend what has been done with Fellowship and start cranking out sausage for the mass market, not comprehending that the mass palate has now been given a taste for filet mignon. But with the second and third sections of the Ring trilogy due out in the next two years, it's probable that shoddy imitations will not generate much in the way of consumer response—not, at least, until the memory of the Jackson trilogy has faded, and that most assuredly will not be for a very long time.